“Why don’t you come out here, whoever you are?” she said. “What do you have to hide?”
“I’m no concern of yours eith—” He stopped, and in the silence a floorboard creaked as if he had shifted his weight. The change in his voice was immediate. “You’re an Immune, aren’t you?”
That was telling, but it still wasn’t an admission of being a magician. A lot of people behaved differently around Immunes than they did with normals. Shess stared at the hem of the brightly patterned cloth, though the second room was too dark for her to see if he stood just beyond the drape.
“I’m here to protect these people,” she said.
The drape flew back as if flung aside by the force of an explosion. It hit the wall, and the man strode out, his feet thudding on the floorboards. Shess pressed back against the wall and forced herself not to reach for her knife.
Because he was a magician, all right. The lamp showed her all she needed to see—the Mark riding his right cheekbone. The topmost arm of the three-pointed star touched the corner of his eye, but what made her gut tighten even further was the color of it—black as obsidian. The Mark was always pallid when it first appeared, but darkened as the magician grew more powerful.
“You knocked him out,” the man said.
He sounded more disbelieving than angry, though she knew that wouldn’t last for long. “Compared to what you’ve done to him, that’d be a kindness. Unless he’s a latent Immune, you’ve infected him.” She squared her shoulders. “How many other people in this village have you touched?”
“He is an Immune,” the man replied flatly.
“Then why isn’t he wearing white?”
He looked her up and down. “Some jackals masquerade as dogs.”
Her priority was keeping the villagers safe, not rising to taunts. “How many other people have you touched?”
His brows went up. “You think I’d tell you if I had?”
What now? Her thoughts raced. His magic wouldn’t work on her, but a fight could go either way. She’d trained with the knife, and some magicians relied so heavily on their power that they were left helpless when it failed.
But he was taller than she was, and looked stronger as well. Now she saw something other than the Mark as she took in the width of his shoulders and the hard-muscled body beneath his nondescript clothes. His long legs were braced slightly apart, as if prepared to withstand a charge—or a landslide—and she dragged her attention from them to his face. That time she noticed not just the ugly brand across it, but the blue eyes, colder than ice, watching her watch him.
He’d be handsome if he weren’t a magician
That was so unintended a stranger might have whispered it in her ear. Shess shook off her stunned disbelief and wondered what had made her think such a thing. Especially since magic had probably contributed to his looks by broadening his chest, shaping the angles of his nose and jaw. More subtle than the magicians’ usual uses of their unlawful, dangerous power, but for the same purpose—to catch people off guard and to make the magicians seem superior.
“Everyone.” His voice was low and mocking, so it took her a moment to realize he was answering the question she’d asked. “Even the children. Are you going to kill them all now?”
The sickening part was that there had been cases of magicians doing just that. All it took was one snake slithering through the night, entering people’s houses to touch them so lightly that it would never have roused them. It was much rarer for magicians to infect people during the day, because they had to hide the Mark to go unnoticed, but they found ways to do that too.
And one of those had slipped past her, almost a year ago.
“What do you want here?” she said tensely. If only she could think of a way to trick him and get enough of an advantage to attack.
“If I tell you, will you leave?”
She said nothing. He stood perhaps four or five feet away from her, but that distance might as well be a mile if he had fast reflexes. Her limbs were stiff, not only with the tension but because she’d locked her legs to avoid them trembling. If Jayoh recovered and came out of the other room, that might distract the magician, but given that the two of them seemed to be on friendly terms, Jayoh wasn’t likely to do anything more.
“There’s a pack of Markholders outside this village,” the man said abruptly.
Magicians had their own names for themselves and their covens, but she didn’t have the time to debate terminology. “Where outside?”
Of course he didn’t answer that. “I saw them this evening, but I didn’t want to approach them in the dark.”
“You fear your own kind? Well, that’s understandable.”
For the first time, he looked as though she’d managed to get under his skin. His mouth tightened, and something snapped in his eyes like a blue-white spark struck off bluer steel. In the back of her mind, she wondered if she had ever seen eyes like those. They would have attracted attention anywhere—if not for the Mark beside them.
“I don’t know who they are,” he said evenly, “and they could have traps set. I want to make sure no one goes near them until I’ve had a chance to speak to them.”
“About what?” To join forces with them was the most obvious reason, because even magic didn’t stave off all the dangers beyond the frontier.
The village crouched in what she thought of as the no-man’s-land between the cities and the veld, and every year the people struggled to plow or herd that boundary a little farther. But she’d heard too many rumors of what lay beyond the horizon. Not just rhinos with horns studding their sides and hyenas that could chameleonize so they looked like tree stumps, but cities abandoned, plagues that traveled on sickening winds, and cannibals said to live in labyrinths dug deep into the mountains. That was why the veld wasn’t teeming with magicians; unseen dangers as well as ordinary predators and natural disasters kept their numbers in check. And out in the untrodden reaches of the wild, it was safest not to be alone. Even other magicians were probably the lesser of two evils.
“To find out who they are and what they want,” he said.
“I can answer that. At best, they want to raid this village for food. At worst, they want to kill or infect everyone.”
He looked at her as though she was a beetle crawling across the floor. “As soon as it’s light, I’ll go talk to them.”
If that was true—no way to make certain—then at least she had the rest of the night in which to act. “And what will you tell them?”
“To stay away, unless they have a good reason for doing otherwise.” The corners of his mouth curled up, though it took her a moment to realize he was smiling. “Perhaps they’re tracking an Immune who’s murdered one of our own.”
Shess had never actually ended a magician with her own hands, though she’d reported and contained newly infected people so other Immunes could deal with them. Not that that kind of distinction was likely to make any difference to magicians; all they needed to see was a glimpse of white and they did everything possible to turn it red.
“Who exactly are you?” she said.
“My name’s Ryard.”
No last name, but a lot of magicians abandoned theirs because what was the point when their families no longer wanted anything to do with them? “I mean, who are you that they should listen to you?”
His dark brows came together. “Why shouldn’t they? We’re all Markholders.”
“Exactly. They’re magicians too. And they outnumber you.”
That time the smile wasn’t subtle; he grinned openly. “Your concern is touching. Tell me—Shess Amadi, was it?—what exactly do you plan to do?”
Shess folded her arms behind her back until the hilt of her knife pressed against her wrist. “Deal with you, then look for these magicians myself. If they even exist.”
“Deal with me. You mean kill me.”
“Make certain you can’t infect anyone.”
His shrug rolled broad shoulders beneath a well-worn shirt. “If you want people to stay uninfected, all I need to do is walk out of here. Why are you so eager to kill?”
Her spirit was certainly willing, though she didn’t know about her flesh. He looked like he could overpower her with his bare hands, not that it meant she would give up.
“You’re diseased,” she said.
“I have the ability to do magic.” Though he wasn’t so careless, she noticed, as to mention exactly what kind of magic he’d been cursed with. “That’s not a disease.”
“Then why does it spread to other people, unless they’re Immune?” She closed her fingers around the knife’s hilt. “And why will it kill you if you use too much of it? It’s a sickness, and the only way to deal with disease is to cut or burn—”
He spun on his heel and headed for the outer door. Shess was too startled to react for a moment, and that was enough time for him to push that drape aside as he went out. She heard his feet thudding down the steps outside.
Pivoting so she stood to one side of the door, her shoulder to the wall, she drew her knife and pulled the drape well out of the way—just in case he’d faked the sounds from outside to lure her into a headlong run. But the steps were already empty, and his long shadow slanted across the dusty ground. She took a cautious step out.
“Where are you going?” she said in an urgent whisper.
Ryard stopped perhaps a yard or so from the steps. “I won’t waste any more time arguing with you,” he said. “I’ll just offer you a proposition so you don’t get killed trying to ‘deal with me.’ If we work together, you can have a chance to arrest me once I make sure those Markholders aren’t going to harm anyone.”
“Magicians harm people by existing.”
He studied her speculatively. “So that was a no?”
Being on the topmost step gave her a height advantage, but her pulse hammered all over again. If he lunged forward, he could shatter the wood with a touch, and she might not recover from the fall before he broke her neck. Instead she dropped on the other side of the steps, went to a crouch so she could close her fingers around a clump of dry earth, and straightened, looking at him over the wooden planks. The lantern light behind him made him look darker in comparison.
“I don’t make deals with anyone I can’t trust,” she said tightly. “And if I…arrest you, that’s at least one magician in hand. I have no idea if there really is a coven outside. For all I know, you’re stalling for time.”
“Ah, I see.” Ryard drew the first word out in a drawl. “All right, I’ll offer you a better deal. If you can kill me, go ahead and do it. If not, you’ll do as I say.”
He started around the steps, and Shess immediately retreated a pace. Dust slipped away between her fingers. “Stay back,” she said.
“Don’t raise your voice. You’ll wake people up.”
“Then you’ll be outnumbered.”
“Then they’ll die if they lay a hand on me.” He’d cleared the steps so there was nothing between them any longer and he was only three or four feet away. “You don’t want to have their blood on your doorstep. Do you, Shess?”
“Their deaths won’t be my doing,” she said and threw the handful of dust in his face.
He jerked back, but not fast enough. In the instant he was blind, she lunged, blade first.
It would have sunk hilt-deep into his heart if he hadn’t twisted. His left arm took the full force of the strike instead, and steel went deep until it grated against bone. Ryard made a harsh sound low in his throat.
Before she could wrench the knife back and strike again, he slammed into her.
It was a brutal, graceless charge, and he was still blinded. But she was so close he could hardly have missed. She went down under his weight and hit the ground so hard it knocked half the breath out of her. The other half was gone when he landed on her.
He pinned her legs down with his thighs so she couldn’t use her knee on him. She jerked her head up instead and would have bitten any part of his flesh she could reach if he hadn’t drawn back just in time. Though that freed her arms. She grabbed for the knife at once.
He caught her wrist. Her fingertips brushed the worn, sweat-softened leather of the hilt—still sticking out of his arm—and then her hand was wrenched flat to the ground, her arm extended so she had no leverage. Her other arm was free, but before she could do anything, he closed his hand on her throat.
She went completely still except for her breathing—which wasn’t likely to last much longer, she knew. His grip hadn’t tightened yet, and it wasn’t even painful, but the fingers curving around her neck might have been carved from stone, immovable.
“Any last words?” he said.
There was no mockery in his voice now; it was empty. He might have been preparing to kill a chicken for his supper. His face was a mask of dust through which sweat made faint streaks, and she couldn’t read anything in it. Her flesh crawled from the touch of his bare skin against hers.
She swallowed, knowing he would feel that against his palm and hating even the small sign of weakness, but she couldn’t have spoken otherwise. “A request.”
Even if she had wanted to stall to think of some way out, she didn’t want any of the villagers to see them and, gods forbid, get infected for trying to intervene. “You can have whatever’s in my pack,” she managed to say. It was beneath her back, pressing uncomfortably into a shoulder blade. “Except my namestone. Send that to Malleus.”
Too late she heard the way she’d spoken, as if giving an order. Fool, she thought bitterly. Magicians were all outlaws because they didn’t want to live by the ways of civilized people, and this one held her life in his hand.
“Will you?” she added through numb lips.
His brows twitched, and even through the dust she could tell he was frowning. “Namestone?”
“It’s wrapped in a handkerchief.” Just continuing to speak was difficult enough without going into explanations, and Immune customs weren’t for a magician’s ears anyway. He didn’t need to know she’d been given that stone carved with her name on the day she’d earned the white. “When my commanding officer gets it, he’ll know I didn’t just…disappear.”
“Desert,” Ryard said bluntly. “Would he believe you’d do that?”
. “Get it over with.” She couldn’t bring herself to add please
His fingers tightened fractionally, just enough to show her the strength in them. With all his weight resting on her, she could hardly breathe, and she was starting to feel light-headed. No, that was good. Maybe that would make it hurt less when he finally finished her off. Heat soaked into her shirt, and when she smelled the coppery pungency she knew it was his blood, but that didn’t seem to affect him any more than her request. He hadn’t even said yes. More likely he’d keep the stone to remember what he’d done to her.
“Want to close your eyes?” he said softly. His breath was warm on her skin.
If her mouth hadn’t been so dry, she would have spat in his face. She stared up into his eyes, cold and blue and merciless, and thought, Never.
He lowered his head, and before she could do anything other than draw in a quick breath—her last—he covered her mouth with his.
Her body froze. She was too startled to react, and he took full advantage of that, tilting his head so the pressure of his mouth forced her lips open. Then his tongue found hers.
Her eyes had closed now, involuntarily. It felt like he wanted to taste her while he killed her—to absorb her life force somehow? Did magicians do that? She couldn’t remember. It felt like he wanted more revenge than simply her death in return for her stabbing him. It felt like…
…like being kissed.
He kissed her hard as if trying to hurt her with his lips and tongue, kissed her roughly and thoroughly until no part of her mouth remained untouched. His hand slid up from her throat to clasp her jaw, fingers spread to hold her head steady, and his mouth slowly gentled against hers. The world swayed around her as if it were dissolving.
She was dissolving too, trapped between the cool ground beneath her and the warm, strong body on top of hers. In the back of her mind she knew she should bite him again, harder that time; she could die with the taste of his blood on her tongue. But the taste of his mouth was better, and the slow sensuous way he stroked her tongue with his made her shudder. She hadn’t been touched like that in so long, and he kissed her as if he’d wanted it for far longer.
To her humiliation, she realized she was kissing him back. She whimpered, and he made a soft satisfied sound, like a low purr, as he grazed her tongue with his teeth.
Then he lifted his head. She managed to suck in a breath, only to lose it again when he kissed her ear, nipping it lightly before he took the lobe between his lips. His heart thudded against her breast.
When his mouth moved lower, her eyes flew open, though all she saw were the stars overhead. The clouds had cleared. His hair tickled her ear, and she shuddered again when his tongue, hot and wet, found the pulse that beat in her throat. Once again she was paralyzed, held poised on the line between life and death—except if she was going to die, she had never felt so alive.
Ryard pushed himself off her and stood. She was panting for breath, dizzy and aching, yet he looked completely untouched in the lantern light except for his torn and bloodstained shirt. Her knife was still embedded in his arm. He pulled the blade out, wincing, but then his face set back into its calm composure.
“I’m leaving just before dawn.” He wiped the blade clean on his sleeve and tossed the knife to the dust beside her. “I’ll try to make them leave before the livestock’s herded out.”
She was still trying to collect herself, but his cool reaction did wonders in that regard. Sitting up, she shoved the knife back into its sheath, wishing she could have buried it in his heart, stopped the entire degrading spectacle before it had ever started.
Forget that and think.
If he was telling the truth, he’d be gone before anyone in the village was awake, and if she followed him, she’d know for certain.
“Where will you be until then?” she managed to ask.
He tilted his head toward the hut. “Don’t do anything else for tonight.”
Without another word, or even a backward look, he went up the steps and back into the hut.